Issue of the day: Counting elephants from space

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IN only a 10 year period, more than 50 per cent of the world’s elephant population was wiped out. Now the remaining creatures are to be tracked from space as part of a new conservation project.

 

Counting elephants from space?

That’s the aim of the project. To do so, earth-observation satellites and a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) known as machine learning are being deployed.

 

How so?

Researchers are using the highest resolution satellite images currently available, which are processed and analysed automatically by a computer algorithm that has been trained with more than 1,000 images of elephants to help spot elephants in the wild. The AI involvement means the creatures can be counted even in hard-to-spot areas covered with trees or shrubs.

 

It’s an international project?

A team from the University of Oxford, in collaboration with Dr Olga Isupova of the University of Bath and Dr. Tiejun Wang, of the University of Twente, are leading the effort, saying the work is “vital” to ensure the survival of the species.

 

They are still hunted for their ivory?

The population of African elephants has plummeted over the last century due to poaching for their ivory, as well as retaliatory killing from crop raiding and habitat fragmentation. According to Action for Elephants UK, around 100 years ago there were over five million elephants across Africa. In 1979 there were 1.3 million, but by 1989, more than 50% of the population was wiped out. This led to an ivory ban in 1989 – at that time, there were only 600,000 elephants left across the whole continent.

 

Counting is crucial?

Dr Isupova, who created the algorithm, said: “Accurate monitoring is essential if we’re to save the species. We need to know where the animals are and how many there are.”

 

What method is currently used to track elephants?

The most common technique in savannah environments are aerial counts from manned aircraft, although observers can get tired and counts can be impacted by poor visibility. Aerial counts can also be logistically challenging and expensive.

 

The new technique?

Its benefits include eliminating any risk of disturbing the animals. Maxar, the US space tech firm behind the satellites used – including one called WorldView-3 which presently orbits 372 miles above the Earth – said: “This unobtrusive technique requires no ground presence so the animals are not disturbed and human safety is not put at risk during data collection. Previously inaccessible areas become accessible.”

 

Hope for the future?

There are fears for the the future of the largest land mammals on earth. With somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 elephants left in the wild, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed them as “vulnerable” and placed them on their Red List of Threatened Species. But the team behind the new project are hopeful. They say: “Satellite remote sensing and deep learning technologies offer promise to the conservation of these majestic mammals.” 

 

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